SUSANVILLE, Calif. — In the basement of the Lassen County courthouse, the drunk-driving and bad check suspects waiting in Justice Court for arraignment one day last month shared the folding chairs with a vaguely familiar and unusually well-dressed gang of five.
The celebrity defendants were four members of the Lassen County Board of Supervisors and last year's board chairman. They did not stand accused of official corruption or lapsed morals. Their alleged crime was discussing the purchase of two new county cars during an 18-minute closed meeting last September.
They are the first elected body to be charged with a criminal violation of California's 35-year-old Ralph M. Brown Act, the law that requires county boards and city councils to conduct most of their business in public meetings.
Plenty of civil suits have arisen out of the law, but no criminal action that could, at least in theory, send an entire elected county government board to jail.
As might be expected, the supervisors are not too happy about it.
'Just So Petty'
"This is pathetic," said Michael A. Grob, their Sacramento attorney, who advised the supervisors not to speak with reporters. "It is just so petty."
Even organizations that have spent years defending and strengthening the act, a favorite tool of journalists and citizen activists, say the "Lassen Five" case is not destined for legal immortality. Mostly they find the episode bemusing.
"I would be surprised if there is a finding of guilt here," said Terry Francke, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., which often invokes the Brown Act in civil courts on behalf of journalists. "But I've been surprised before."
In the small mountain towns of Lassen County, where residents are quick to slap a recall petition on politicians who step out of line, the misdemeanor charges have caused hardly a ripple in the routine of making ready for the summer tourist onslaught.
"Not one letter to the editor has come in," said Tom Wright, news editor of the Lassen County Times and instigator of the episode. "The people are keeping real quiet. Maybe they're waiting to see if any convictions come out of this."
Wright's role began during the winter when he read some minutes from a Board of Supervisors meeting held in September. He noticed that a vote to approve a raise and a car for county Administrative Officer Ron Holden had been discussed earlier, according to the minutes, in a private session.
The Brown Act allows certain personnel and legal matters to be discussed in private. But Wright said he did not feel that Holden's salary and car--and the decision to buy a second county car as well--were included.
"I think they deserve cars. I have no problem with that," Wright said recently. "My complaint is it wasn't done in full view of the public."
With the backing of his publisher, Wright took his conclusions to Lassen County Dist. Atty. William O. Scott. In most such cases, Brown Act experts say, the dispute does not become a criminal matter.
If a violation occurs, it can be fixed by the board simply taking up the issue again properly in public session. In extreme cases when a city council or board has been defiant, a civil injunction has been obtained to force a meeting to be held in public. But the law has always allowed for criminal penalties as well.
"The purpose of the Brown Act is not simply to have the final decision made in public but to have the debate that led to the final decision in public," said Walter Zelman, executive director for California Common Cause. "But in most cases civil penalties would probably suffice."
In Lassen County, the district attorney called in the Susanville Police Department to investigate. After several months of investigation, Scott filed one misdemeanor count March 23 against each of the five--Supervisors Helen Williams, Gary Lemke, John Gaither and Hughes de Martimprey, and former board Chairman Jack Jenkins, who lost his seat in November's election.
Could Be Fined, Jailed
All were released on their own recognizance at the April 19 arraignment, and pleas were delayed until June 8. By law, the charges could carry a six-month jail sentence, a $1,000 fine and $2,000 in penalty assessments.
Scott's decision to file charges came as a surprise, both in Lassen County and among attorneys with extensive Brown Act experience. Scott will not discuss the case, even to rebut whispered allegations that he is engaging in political revenge for an earlier clash with the supervisors over staffing for Scott's office.
The vendetta theory is not widely accepted by those who are close to the case, on either side.
"I don't think he's the type of person to make it a personal battle," Wright, the newspaper editor, said of Scott. "He knew he was going to have to deal with these people again."